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In Extremis

High NRG Dancefloor Mayhem: An Interview With Blacknecks
Harry Sword , June 18th, 2014 06:12

Harry Sword meets the not-so-shadowy duo behind the belting Italo-gabber-techno of Blacknecks, responsible for some of the Quietus' favourite club bangers of the year so far, to chat boogie nights, tape loops and cereal boxes

Photo by Doris Woo

What would happen, one might reasonably ask, were you to take some cranky Italo disco records and ladle on a whacking great spoonful of distorted gabba kicks, like Oliver Twist let loose at the gruel cauldron when cook's back is turned? And then what might happen if you then added rave horns, bought it a day-saver ticket to Southend-on-Sea, and named it Rita?

Luckily for us, Tom Russell, aka Truss, actually did ask these exact questions - well, the first one at least - and again, luckily for us, the man he put the question to was fellow baron of thwack Al Matthews, of Forward Strategy Group and Bleaching Agent fame. The duo's first couple of Blacknecks 12”s were shrouded in mystery, but not your typical "limited run, mastered by Rashad Becker at Dubplates and Mastering, comes with a free black and white postcard of a brick, eight-minute drone on the B-side" sort of mystery. Instead, little nuggets of disinformation were disseminated. The duo claimed to be 'former garage producers who decided to make techno', and before long the message boards were alight with amateur sleuthery. However, while their music is undoubtedly good fun, it is anything but throwaway.

The series of 12”s released on the eponymous Blacknecks label have all been total belters, joining the dots between disco, boogie, gabba techno and hallucinatory grime instrumentals heard as if from a passing car. Having recently made their live debut at Birmingham's legendary evening of unpolished debauchery, The House Of God, the Quietus caught up with Russell and Matthews to discuss boogie nights, transvestite mic control and insane French gabba.

You recently made your live debut at House of God. Can you tell us a little bit about the night? Was it a suitably ramshackle affair?

Tom Russell: HoG was great fun. It was the perfect place for us to make our debut. We had the idea to get Al's brother-in-law, Joe - aka Joyce D'Vision - to do a cover of 'Bad Boy' live on stage with us. He also ended up MCing for us for the rest of the set. We figured that if there's one place we could just about get away with having a transvestite shouting the word 'clubbing' over pitched down gabber and hardcore records then House of God would be it. It did split the crowd a bit, but it got everyone talking about it…

Al Matthews: Yeah, it was a bit of a shambles, good banter though, and generally a good response. Joe got rushed by a load of people afterwards calling him the new Divine and the like, and he was chatted up by a woman who presumably thought he was just metrosexual… And it was his fault I kicked that guy in the teeth afterwards. He sneaked up behind me, swept me off my feet and I kicked a beer bottle into this poor guy's face as he was drinking from it. He was a bit shaken up but was very gracious. He probably hates my guts though.

'To The Cosmos, Let's Go!'

I loved the fabricated back story - although I confess it did initially put me off checking the tunes out for a while - of former garage producers turned techno nerds. Did you enjoy watching the reaction/comments?

TR: It was funny seeing people commenting on who they thought was behind the project. I noticed a few people intentionally spreading misinformation - that was great. The involvement of one of the members from East 17 was a particular highlight.

AM: Yeah, that was mentioned as a joke by someone - then got repeated, seemingly seriously. It was hard to tell who was taking the piss and who was just a bit naïve. I'm glad you were put off! The UK garage thing I mentioned as a joke to Tom; we briefly imagined what we would write for the press release, then it wasn't mentioned again until I saw all the shops were calling us former pop stars. Was a bit late to resend it by then.

How did you come into being as Blacknecks?

TR: Al sent me a message one day out of the blue asking me if I used a particular piece of software, as he had some files he wanted to share. I assumed that he was suggesting we collaborate, although looking back I might have just jumped to that conclusion... Either way, he sent me some files, I sent him some files in return, and we each came up with a couple of tracks that we decided were almost of a release-worthy standard.

AM: Yeah I fancied doing a couple of tracks together as a one-off thing, was thinking just some nice, interesting punchy techno or electro or whatever. He sent me thirty minutes of squealing drones to work with and I thought 'Fuck you then, I can beat you at this game in my sleep mate', and an hour later finished the first track on the first record.

TR: As for the name Blacknecks...

AM: Then it turns out Blacknecks is also a nickname given to the UVF, so you know, not gonna be playing Northern Ireland any time soon! Tom said it'd be fine once we revealed ourselves. I don't think my being a Catholic Glaswegian who supports Rangers helps matters, though.

How did you each arrive at music production?

AM: I don't know, the usual thing really, doing cassette edit mixtapes and recording needles scraping across paper and the like at 11. The first hardcore and gabber tapes I heard, I immediately thought 'Ah I recognize these waveforms, I could do this on a C64', then I didn't bother until maybe the age of 13 or 14. I've got a tape somewhere of the earliest of my tracks which is very funny if I remember. Once I get a cassette player I should get them out there.

TR: I would also like to say that I experimented with tape loops as a child, but in reality my first taste of making music was thanks to some software called Dance eJay that came free in a pack of cereal when I was 18.

'Hotline'

You sound like you enjoy your disco/boogie? It's a welcome influence! Also, did you ever enjoy early Hardgroove records?

TR: We're both quite into disco. I told Al one day that I wanted to try combining Italo disco with overdriven, gabber-style kicks. He told me it was a stupid idea and he was absolutely right.

AM: My exact response was 'That's the worst idea I've ever heard', then he sent me a sketch for 'To The Cosmos, Let's Go!', and that didn't seem too bad.

TR: I was quite into the Hardgroove sound. I used to go to some of the Split parties that Ben Sims ran in London which were always good fun. Techno in the main room and then funk, disco, soul, boogie etc in room two; there are some amazing funk and disco mixes by Ben Sims floating around online.

AM: I spent those years not listening to any techno. Hardgroove passed me by… Sims is a brilliant DJ though.

What are your thoughts on harder music in general? A track like 'To The Cosmos, Let's Go!' injects a fair amount of epic melody.

TR: I guess it's subjective really… Al has a pretty incredible knowledge of gabber and hardcore. Some of the tracks he's sent me make the stuff I generally make and play sound really tame in comparison.  

A: Yeah I used to play the weirder French stuff, the kind that's barely playable, so I've a bit of a love/hate relationship with Dutch gabber. There are some fantastic records from the early 90s, but it went south fairly quickly for various reasons. But given what we play and how our music ends up, quite a lot of that knowledge isn't relevant to Blacknecks. It's a nice challenge to have, trying to draw on influences that are difficult to work into techno.

What kind of set up do you guys use live?

TR: 2 x laptops running Ableton, 2 x midi controllers, 1 x transvestite MC.

AM: A transvestite MC wearing men's clothes; think we had an FX pedal as well. That's more the DJ setup, we might have a couple more bits if we do something live. Plus Joe being there was a one-off just for House Of God - would love to do it again though.

The Blacknecks sound reminds me of some kind of really seedy, fucked-up disco. If you could curate such a place for the evening, who is playing and why?

TR: Intergalactic FM and its affiliated DJs have had a big influence on us. A line-up with the likes of I-F, Intergalactic Gary, David Vunk, Loud-E would be great. I've been switched on to such a huge amount of music from listening to IFM, and downloading sets from robotdj.net.

AM: Funnily enough, recently I saw David Vunk post a photo of his record box for a set he was playing that evening and it was all Notek, Labitox, Stormcore etc - all the weirdest French speedcore. So he might be ideal. We're having a few mates playing disco at our wedding reception (me and my future wife, not me and Tom). So if Loud-E's reading this, if you fancy coming to play for no money and a Glasgow buffet, give me a call.

TR: Surgeon would also be on the line up. One of my favorite 'clubbing' experiences ever was when he dropped [Patrick Cowley's] 'Megatron Man' in the middle of a raucous techno set a few years back at Cable. High NRG dancefloor mayhem ensued.

AM: I think Surgeon, Optimo, Loud-E etc. Joe and his boyfriend actually have a residency at some straight working man's pub playing disco. “Look, can we just keep it smooth until 10.30 please?!?”, he apparently snapped once. They'd be good.

'Four Cunts & A Badge'

What other music are you excited by at the moment?

AM: I do like the heavier stuff at the minute, even though I tend not to play much of it. I'm a huge fan of Furfriend for obvious reasons. In fact the last time I saw Perc I told him I was hurt that he didn't get me to remix them on their Perc Trax release. Raging. Apart from that, guys like Manse, especially with all the great rhythmic 'mistakes' that throw a track off course, and there's Chrononautz in Leeds who I saw play live recently. Outside of techno (and disco), I've been revisiting early Associates stuff a lot, just found out about Golden Teacher about two years after everyone else did, Liars - who the prick next to me got to remix…I don't half get bitter about people who remix artists I like! Yeah, there's some nice bits and bobs out there at the moment.

TR: Objekt is one of my favourite producers around at the moment. He's one of those rare people that manages to combine an obvious talent for the technical side of production with lots of creativity. He manages to present quite abstract music and sound in a very accessible way. Outside of techno it's mostly listening to Intergalactic FM when I'm at home with my wife. Classix or Murder Capital are the stations we usually have on.

What else do you have coming up this year?

AM: Just one more, a double pack. Then we're done.

TR: Unless we have the opportunity to remix Skream.

And will the Blacknecks live set be finding its way anywhere else?

AM: Yeah, we have a few coming up - we're not sure how long we'll carry on for. We knew from the beginning it was a project with a shelf life. It'll be dead as soon as people get accustomed to it, I think.

TR: Ride out the rest of the year then put the project to bed, I guess, unless we get some festival bookings next year with Skream.

AM: Let it go mate, you're never going to meet him.

Blacknecks' current EP, Blacknecks 005, is out now. Their seedy-as-hell chunk of Italo-ooof bliss 'To The Cosmos, Let's Go' is also still available at your favourite record emporium, and comes highly recommended by the Quietus office staff

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